Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Do Not Touch

More about Pesach in the next few days, I hope, but a little about this morning for now.

Making our post-Pesach way back to Toronto, we stopped off in a small town for minyan. I had never been in this particular community, but I knew it had economic trouble, a few small, struggling shuls, and a serious split in the observant community between its more yeshivish members and its less-learned contingent.

As I drove through the town to the yeshivish shul (they had the later minyan) this morning, the reality of the city’s economic trouble was clear; the state of the houses, the people on the streets, made the town’s upbeat welcoming slogan look depressingly silly. But more depressing was the minyan itself; no one smiled, no one welcomed, it was just grim. And monochrome. And sparse.

The scene called to mind the sad state of so many Jewish communities outside of Israel – all of them, really. We possess so little in the way of resources, there are so many reasons to think that the future outside Israel is grim-to-bleak, and yet little population pockets persist in battling to claim their turf from the dwindling whole.

To me, this is an accurate depiction of the politics of the Jewish world whether we’re talking about small towns or big cities, populations of 5000 Jews or 500,000 Jews. We are so impoverished on so many levels, and facing such hurdles to even continue existing, how can people waste time and resources lording it over what little they have, hanging on to monopolize tiny institutions? It reminds me of the דל גאה, the arrogant pauper, whom the gemara (Pesachim 113b) labels, “intolerable.”

Part of it, I suppose, is the need of the pauper to mark his territory and bark at others as a way of establishing/retaining some sort of pathetic pride for himself. But it’s absurd, and it’s self-destructive. Is this really the way to survival, or is it a sort of communal euthanasia?

As minyan concluded, I thought perhaps I was being too judgmental. Maybe I had been prejudiced by the things I had heard about the community. Could be that the morning’s aura was just a post-Pesach letdown. I could have been all wrong, right?

Then I reached into the sefarim shelf in my row to withdraw a Mishneh Berurah I saw there, to check something before leaving. I picked up the book, only to see someone’s name taped to it, and below that, in large capital letters, DO NOT TOUCH. I dropped it back in the row, scalded by the heat coming off those letters. Then I just had to pick it back up, to see for myself whether it said ‘Please’ – so I did it with a shinui, using the back of my hand, as though that would be any less a violation of the presumptive owner’s instructions – and No, there was no ‘Please.’

Just someone protecting his turf. Indeed.


  1. Sad indeed. Pathetic.

  2. Along with turf wars there also comes the inevitable labels, most of which have no "real" meaning that will hold as a definition to be used by everyone. It's why I disagree with your statement "and a serious split in the observant community between its more yeshivish members and its less-learned contingent." You seem to be defining the label "yeshivish" as being more learned. If you are not yeshivish then you are, de facto, less-learned. Sorry but it doesn't hold up.

    In the "real world" of Jewish labeling yeshivish does NOT indicate a particular level of learning but a STYLE of living/dress/actions, at least in a general nebulous way. It is why the majority of New Yorkers will call someone from Chaim Berlin yeshivish but will NOT apply the term to someone from YU, regardless of that YU-niks smicha and sitting in kollel learning. And regardless of the fact that many of those who self select as yeshivish may have spent many years inside of a yeshiva but still aren't very learned.

    According to today's labels you cannot be modern orthodox and be yeshivish--two distinct styles. Using your definition of yeshivish as being more learned, those adhering to the lable modern orthodox would be less-learned, a statement that simply won't hold up.

    It might be more accurate perhaps to say that this particular community is split along religious observance lines rather than knowledge lines.

  3. Joseph-

    I hear your point and agree in general. I was writing with this particular community in mind, and there the term "yeshivish" does make sense, for reasons that are specific to that community. But in general, I'd very much agree.